Parshas Vayishlach - Rav Wosner & The Austrian Celebrity Singer

By BJLife/Rabbi Moshe Pruzansky

Posted on 11/19/21

Parshas HaShavua Divrei Torah sponsored by
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When Yaakov asked the malach of Eisav to bless him, the malach said Yaakov’s name would be changed to “Yisroel”, because “you have striven with the Divine and with men and have won/overcome” (Bereishis 32:29).

Rashi explains that when the malach said “with men”, he was referring to Yaakov’s triumphs over Lavan and Eisav. As our parsha begins with Yaakov being forced to give a substantial gift to Eisav, and to lower himself by bowing to his wicked brother not once, but 7 times in an attempt to placate his wrath, in what way can this be considered victorious? Wasn’t it Eisav who emerged from their encounter with his ego elevated, as well as with more material wealth due to Yaakov’s gifts, while Yaakov was forced to flatter and capitulate to him? Didn’t Yaakov lose out? How can the Torah possibly label this as Yaakov having “overcome” Eisav or having “won”?

Over 100 hundred years ago, in the very beginning of the 1900’s, there was a young girl whose last name was Shiff, who had a most beautiful and amazing voice. Her talents were nothing short of professional. She was the talk of all of those who knew her.

News spread of her amazing talent to a famous agent, who offered this young potential star, a very lucrative opportunity and career. Thrilled, she decided to discuss the matter with her parents. However, for a religious frum girl in Vienna, Austria, coming from a frum Torah home, professional singing was simply not an option. When her parents were told about the details, they agreed that they will do all within their power to not allow it to be. Unfortunately, swept up by the idea of her potential stardom, the young girl refused to listen to them.

Her father took his daughter to their rav, Rabbi Shlomo Baumgarten, who tried to convince the girl to abandon this career path. Reb Shlomo, sensing that he had not swayed her, suggested that they go to Rav Yitzchok Meir, the Kapitshnitzer Rebba, who was in Vienna at the time.

Immediately, the father went with his daughter to see the Rebba, who spoke with the girl. “Tell me, my dear Jewish daughter, why do you want so badly to go into this line of work?”. The girl answered honestly: “It is because of the fame that I will find. l will be known throughout the world.”

The Rebba closed his eyes, deep in thought, contemplating the aspirations that the girl had just expressed. After a few moments, the Rebba opened his eyes and began to speak: “Listen closely, my dear daughter. It is the dream of every young Jewish woman to be blessed with a child who will illuminate the world through his Torah learning. I give you my promise that if you now sacrifice your chance at fame, while it may feel like you have “lost” out on fame, you will in fact win more fame, for more years, than you can imagine. There will come a time when you will be blessed with a child who will light up the world. He will become one of the greatest halachic authorities of his time, a posek ha’dor. Your fame will come, but it will be through him, your son. If you say ‘yes’, while it might not feel like a triumph right now, trust me, one day you will cherish this moment forever; the moment that you chose to win in the area which is truly important & to also receive much more meaningful fame, which will be your pride and joy forever.”

The young girl wiped away a tear and thought deeply about the magnanimous promise the Rebba had just made to her. She was a fine, young Jewish girl, and so, after considering the offer, she accepted the Rebbe’s proposition.

Rav Don Segal, the famed mashgiach and mashpiah, discovered this amazing story in the Sefer Kehillos of Austria and decided to pursue the rest of the story. Rav Segal discovered that this girl eventually got married and had a son by the name of Shmuel. This Shmuel grew up to be none other than Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner (pronounced “Vozner”), posek ha’dor, who authored the famous sefer Shevet HaLevi – a comprehensive series of halachic rulings and response on halacha comprising ten volumes.

When Rav Don approached Rav Wosner to question the validity of the story, and mentioned the details he had read, Rav Wosner became very emotional and, with tears in his eyes, replied, “It all makes sense now. When I was young, my mother always encouraged me to learn well and to be an ehrliche Yid. She always said, ‘You cannot imagine what I had to overcome to win you. I know I did the right thing – you are, and will grow to be, the world’s and my own, ultimate eternal victory’”.

Indeed, Rav Wosner grew and grew in his greatness, in fact becoming one of the leading Torah luminaries of his day. His halachic decisions and seforim are studied to this very day.

While Rav Wosner’s mother may have felt when she was a young girl that she had lost out on the victory of being a singer and the temporary and superficial fame that being a celebrity affords, she later realized that in fact she had indeed won and achieved true victory: a son who became the Posek ha’dor, an eternal legacy of Gedolim, zechusim, etc. – not to mention the perpetual ever-more-meaningful fame of her son.

Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik answers our question by pointing out that our question is based on a common, fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of “success”. Contrary to popular belief, “victory” is not defined by material wealth nor is it defined by subduing and crushing the other side. If it was, then Yaakov certainly lost. Rather, the Torah is teaching us that it is defined by achieving one’s true goals, while nothing else matters. A person who successfully accomplishes his goals, whatever they may be, is indeed victorious even if he lost out on materialism or honor in the process, as Yaakov demonstrated. 

Yaakov’s goal was to be able to pursue his service of Hashem and to raise his children to continue in his pious ways without outside distractions or interference. If the only way to accomplish that objective was to give Eisav a considerable number of animals as a present, and to humble himself before his arrogant brother by bowing to him, then he was quite willing and happy to do so. By doing so, & by achieving his true goals, he genuinely “won” – despite any materialism lost in the process - as the Torah itself attests*.

Living Inspired

From time to time, People get caught-up in every disappointment or “loss” that they experience. People often get frustrated by such “losses”, don’t have the same level of happiness throughout their day due to them, or, they stop trying altogether to succeed due to the fear of those failures ever repeating themselves. One thing is certain: most people don’t often regard themselves as major “winners” in life. One indication of this is simply the fact that we’re not usually bursting with joy, despite the many successes that we have had in life - while someone who just won the lottery, or felt like they just won a victory, would be.

The Torah is teaching us to redefine our definition of “winning” and “losing” in life. Losing in some relatively irrelevant battles is not considered losing the war. Rather, we should all set concrete ruchniyus goals in life and redefine what we want to accomplish. Make sure it is something real, meaningful, and eternal. After that, don’t consider the tough journey, or losing out on fake “victories”, to feel like, or be defined as, a “loss”. Instead, be happy with every moment that you are successfully marching towards your meaningful, ruchniyus life-goals, despite the inevitable “loses” that occur from time to time in other areas.

If we do so, and we stay focused on what’s truly important, we will all be able to pursue our goals with that much more strength and focus. We would also be that much happier, not getting distracted by, or down from, life’s inevitable “losses” in material wealth, honor, etc. & instead staying focused on our true goals. When we merit to do so, we will all be happy, positive and we will be zoche for Hashem Himself to declare that our efforts, like Yaakov’s, were “victorious”. There’s no greater win than that! (see below for an additional takeaway**).  

Gut Shabbos


*- Based on a beautiful Dvar Torah by R’ Ozer Alport.

**- Additionally, this concept comes up when it comes to maintaining shalom & shalom bayis. If a person’s goal in life is to selfishly make sure that everything is done in accordance with his personal opinions and preferences, then any time that someone acquiesces he has “succeeded” in meeting his objectives, and any time that he is forced to give in, then he has “failed”. While this model may be comfortable and familiar, it will not help a person find long-term happiness and satisfaction.

Rather, we should emulate Yaakov avinu who was willing to compromise; a person should strive to make his needs secondary to the greater cause and ultimate goal of establishing an atmosphere of peace with everyone. A person who does so may find himself compromising more than he would have liked, but his ability to do so will allow him to successfully accomplish his true goal: He will reap the immeasurable benefits and security of friendship, shalom and shalom bayis. Doing so makes him the true winner*.